This morning, President Obama announced his nomination to the Supreme Court to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat. His choice, Merrick Garland, is the Chief Justice of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Garland is a moderate and a centrist by all accounts and has had bipartisan support during his tenure as Justice of the D.C. Circuit. In 2010, when asked if Garland could win the confirmation with bipartisan support, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah replied “no question.” Just a few hours ago, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated on the Senate floor that he would not consider an Obama nominee. What happened?
This is a recurring strategic theme of the Republican Congressional establishment since Obama took office. Any hint of bipartisanship in public perception is a tacit endorsement of the broader aims of an Obama administration-led effort, to paraphrase Leader McConnell. Looking at Obama’s relationship with Congress since his election in 2008, this strategy’s implementation is easy to see. At no point have the Republicans in Congress truly recognized Obama’s legitimacy as President.
Pre-2010, the Democrats possessed a supermajority in Congress and were able to draft and pass the Affordable Care Act. Healthcare reform had been a legislative priority for Democrats for the past fifty years and, sensing a real chance to pass substantive legislation, President Obama, along with Congress, pursued a centrist market-based solution to the healthcare problem rather than a single-payer solution that many liberals wanted. The actual ideology behind Obamacare didn’t matter to the Republicans in Congress; in fact, Obamacare was modeled off former Republican presidential candidate and Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s bipartisan healthcare reforms in Massachusetts. Republicans fought tooth and nail against Obamacare and preached that it was detrimental to the future of America to little legislative avail. Not that the Republican leadership really expected to be able to stop Obamacare; they were in the minority in both houses of Congress. Democrats in Congress were never their audience—the public was. The Republican establishment warned the public that Obamacare was an encroachment on their rights and demanded action in the next elections. In the midterm elections of 2010, Republicans won back the House, winning thirty-eight new seats and ushering in an era of divided government from 2010 through the present day. The strategy of obstructionism and refusing to accept Obama’s legitimacy easily won the Republicans the House of Representatives by reinvigorating their base behind a seemingly worthy cause.
Looking at the present day, it’s easy to see why people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are leading the polls for the Republican presidential nomination. Both Trump and Cruz’s political careers were born out of some sort of opposition to the Obama administration. Trump began his by fanning the flames of “birtherism,” the theory that Obama was not born in the United States. Cruz rode a wave of Tea Party support to win the Texas Senatorial election in 2012. These relative newcomers to the political scene are beholden to the wave of right-wing fury that allowed the Republicans to win back the House in 2010; ironically, establishment figures that wanted obstruction when they were in the minority are now having trouble actually leading, because of the same support that won them back the House, and eventually the Senate.
Merrick Garland is a nominee that should have bipartisan support. He would have it in any other era. A nomination in the last year of a Presidential administration is not an automatic disqualification from consideration—just look to last year of the Reagan administration. In order to survive as a viable alternative to the Democrats, Republicans need to be more than the party of “No.”